Of all the Masters of Horror, none are as singular as the great Larry Cohen. Many horror directors have made great movies that are identifiable as their own either stylistically or thematically (or many times both), but Cohen’s films truly could not be made by anyone else. They don’t necessarily have the technical sheen of Carpenter or the primal, confrontational quality of early Craven, but no one else in the genre combines inspired premises with subversive humor, political commentary, offbeat dialogue, and a specific feel for his locations – most commonly New York, which lives and breathes in Larry Cohen’s movies in a way it rarely does in any other filmmaker’s work. He’s a genuine one-of-a-kind treasure, and seeing his filmography reassessed and celebrated either in the documentary King Cohen or with special edition Blu-rays for movies of his such as Q: The Winged Serpent and The Stuff.
Thanks to a new licensing deal with Warner Bros. that has given Scream Factory access to the WB vaults, we’re also now getting a Blu-ray release of Cohen’s It’s Alive Trilogy, consisting of It’s Alive (1974), It’s Alive 2 (aka It Lives Again) (1978), and It’s Alive III: Island of the Alive (1987). Using a characteristically great Larry Cohen premise as a jumping off point – the first ever (as far as I can recall) “killer baby” movie – the It’s Alive films brilliantly weave between being legitimately scary monster movies, social commentary, family drama, and campy comedy over the course of the series. They’re movies only Larry Cohen could have made.
It’s Alive casts John P. Ryan and Sharon Farrell as Frank and Lenore Davis, expecting parents of their second child. When the baby is born, however, it comes out a kind of deformed monster, killing everyone in the operating room and then escaping. Believed to be the result of some birth control pills Lenore had been taking for years, the baby is now loose and on a killing spree. The drug company wants the baby found and killed to cover up their potential culpability, and Frank, horrified by his own child, joins the hunt. Only Lenore wants to protect her son, no matter how monstrous he may be. He is, after all, her baby.
Maybe the most audacious thing about It’s Alive is that Cohen made it in the first place; a movie about a baby that slaughters everyone from the doctors delivering it to the milkman is so transgressive that it’s kind of a miracle. That Cohen takes this premise and makes something so smart and effective out of it is even more impressive, since he really could have rested on the crazy concept and done very little with it. Instead, he made a movie that is smart and sad, both a beautiful testament to the unconditional love a parent feels for a child and a commentary on reproductive rights just one year removed from Roe v. Wade. Rick Baker’s baby monster isn’t especially sophisticated in some shots, but the few good glimpses we get of the thing are quite effective, made even more so throughout the film because the actors all completely sell it. Adding to the genuine sense of horror that pervades the film is Bernard Herrmann’s fantastic score, all dark and foreboding and warning us of the terrors to come. Everything about the movie is played straight, not just to make it scary but also to do justice to the legitimate family drama and political subtext Cohen layers into his screenplay. It’s quite the balancing act.
Recognizing that he can’t just repeat the events of the first movie beat for beat in the sequel, Cohen introduces a handful of new ideas and even more monster babies for It Lives Again, released four years after the original film. John P. Ryan returns as Frank Davis, who has now devoted his life to traveling all over the country to help families giving birth to the same sort of mutated babies his son was (it has, by the time of the sequel, become an epidemic). He enters the lives of Jody and Eugene Scott (Kathleen Lloyd and Frederic Forrest), who are giving birth to their own It’s Alive baby. The rest of the movie follows a country divided: the citizens and police force who believe these babies to be abominations and would see them either aborted or killed once born, and the underground resistance network that helps deliver, hide and protect the mutant infants.
While similar in both plot and tone to the original It’s Alive, It Lives Again manages to open up the scope somewhat by making the birth of a monster baby not an isolated incident but a nationwide emergency; it’s hinted at the final line of the first movie and realized in full here. The body count is higher, the gore more prominent, the monster baby effects more ambitious (and also somewhat less convincing, as the need to have more of them necessitates scenes of actors struggling with obvious rubber puppets). It’s not a better movie than the original, but Cohen does try to expand on the ideas he was developing in It’s Alive in a way that’s satisfying. Just as before, all of the actors completely commit and help make it all feel convincing; John Ryan’s character is taken to some unexpected places and both Lloyd and Forrest clearly struggle with how to feel about the baby they brought into the world. What’s fascinating about Larry Cohen movies like this is that despite how sly and subversive they are, he always sides with the people against the bigger organizations or corporations. His movies are cynical, but not bleak.
Nearly eight years would pass before Cohen completed his trilogy with It’s Alive III: Island of the Alive in 1987. The biggest and certainly campiest of the three movies casts Cohen’s leading man of choice Michael Moriarty as Jarvis, father of a monster baby in a country where, years later, these births have continued to be an epidemic. Jarvis takes his case to court and asks that his son’s life be spared by confining him and a few other monster babies to a remote island where they can’t harm anyone. Estranged from his wife (Karen Black) and forced to live as an outcast now that he is the public face of giving birth to these creatures, Jarvis grows angrier and more bitter against the world. As years pass, Jarvis is asked to travel back to the island to locate the babies for scientific purpose, where it’s discovered that they grow at an accelerated rate and are now even capable of reproducing themselves. Everything should still be fine, provided the babies never make it back to Amer…what’s that? Oh, the babies make it back to America. This should go well.
It’s Alive III is, in many ways, the movie that most people might accuse the first It’s Alive of being if they had never seen it for themselves. It’s much more violent and downright silly at times, eliminating some of the more thoughtful subtext to become more of a traditional “killer baby” movie (he said, pretending that is a genre that actually exists). Moriarty is his usual daffy self, and it’s fun to get appearances from familiar genre faces like Black, Gerrit Graham, and Laurene Landon, another Cohen regular. I like how Cohen continues expanding his story outwards, and the idea of trying to “solve” the problem by simply sending it away is a compelling one. This is the most ambitious of the three films from a technical standpoint, introducing adult-size mutant monsters, stop motion effects, considerably increased gore, and large-scale crowd scenes that sometimes turn into full-blown riots. But the law of diminishing returns is definitely in effect for this series, making this the weakest of the three despite being a pretty fun and bonkers horror movie.
Scream Factory has collected all three films in one box, each housed in its own case with its own artwork. In addition to brand new 2K HD scans for the films, each movie comes with a characteristically thoughtful and informative commentary track from writer/director/producer Cohen, whose talks over his films are often as fun to watch as the movies themselves. It’s Alive also includes a 20-minute retrospective documentary covering the entire series, with various interviews with Cohen cut together with clips from the film and comments from a handful of other talking heads, including cast members such as Michael Moriarty and Laurene Landon. Disc Three, Island of the Alive, features a new interview with makeup effects designer Steve Neill, who talks about his work on the sequel. The rest of the bonus material consists of promotional and marketing material for each film, including trailers, radio spots, still galleries, and television commercials. The discs aren’t necessarily packed with bonus content, but the Cohen commentaries contain so much information that repeating it across multiple featurettes would have been unnecessary.
Because Larry Cohen doesn’t make movies like anyone else, the It’s Alive movies aren’t like anything else. Scream Factory has done right by their Blu-ray debut, and the decision to release them all as a collection instead of separate discs to be bought a la carte is appreciated. Revisiting them for this review reminded me of just how skillful they are when they could have been just outrageous, and how outrageous they are when they could have just rested on a concept. If we horror fans are going to have killer baby movies, these are the killer baby movies we need.
It’s Alive Movie Score: 3.5/5
It Lives Again Movie Score: 3/5
It’s Alive III: Island of the Alive Movie Score: 2.5/5
Disc Score: 4/5